Conor McPherson's Dublin Carol Pours Whiskey on Charles Dickens's Christmas Tale
The Irish Repertory Theatre revives McPherson's simple story of redemption on Christmas Eve.
What better day for Catholic guilt to come creeping up on an Irishman than Christmas Eve, when ghosts of the past are about, and Jesus is staring down at you from every piece of festive decor? Conor McPherson's Dublin Carol — getting its first off-Broadway revival with the Irish Repertory Theatre since its 2003 production with the Atlantic Theater Company — packs a lifetime of disgrace and redemption into a single day. Though unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, our middle-aged malefactor, John (Jeffrey Bean), doesn't get supernatural or divine help (unless you count the king-size crucifix looming over Charlie Corcoran's set). He just has your familiar Irish devices of long-winded storytelling and an endless supply of whiskey.
Carved into three scenes, Dublin Carol is a simple, and potentially sleepy, play that hinges on your investment in John's tortured trip down memory lane. And even a stellar performance like Bean's isn't always enough to keep your mind from wandering off the road. John is a man accustomed to stream-of-consciousness blathering, literally talking circles around his past either to justify it or to numb the pain of memory via self-induced dizziness. Day drinking also helps. And he does a mix of both in the presence of an aimless 20-year-old kid named Mark (a delightfully juvenile Cillian Hegarty). John offers him some work at the funeral home that, ironically, gave him his own fresh start at life many years ago. That olive branch happened to have been extended to John by Mark's uncle, Noel (an aptly named savior figure who will sadly be spending this Christmas in the hospital) — so John is paying it forward and perhaps collecting some much-needed karma along the way.
"I was very messy at one time, you know?" says John, hinting at a shadowy youth that he smooths over with reductive idioms, chased with what he clearly considers a tasteful amount of booze in his tea. Hints of denial and desperation are what we take from this first scene into the second, where John's estranged adult daughter, Mary (a lovely and understated Sarah Street), appears. She gives him some dire news about her mother and holds out the option for her father to either face his past mistakes, or keep talking and drinking them to death.
The dialogue is meticulously written, naturally performed, and, under Ciarán O'Reilly's direction, avoids the senseless shouts and sobs that many family dramas rely on for emotional intensity. That being the case, there's really nothing for the production to do but settle into the unexceptional middle ground of a perfectly passable character study. John leaves you neither longing for his reformation, nor rooting for his comeuppance. Mary dredges up the ugliest moments of his past, to which he responds with due grief, followed by an alcohol coma.
So is his Grinch-like change of heart in the final scene truly earned? I suppose that depends on how powerful you consider the final window in an advent calendar that taunts John with both the beginning and end of the most forgiving day of the year. It's a sweet ending for a play inspired by Charles Dickens's famously optimistic allegory. But I can't say the sight of John putting on his coat to face a new day gives us anything close to the satisfying sight of Scrooge's shining face on Christmas morning.